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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (right) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (centre), along with Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland (left), wave during a photo at the Ukrainian Reform conference in Toronto, on July 2, 2019.

LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty Images

I watched Canada’s long history of diaspora politics reach some sort of apex on Wednesday morning, when the Foreign Affairs Minister stood before an audience at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel and delivered a 10-minute speech in effortless Ukrainian, before switching to equally fluent French and English. She then introduced the newly elected President of Ukraine, who attempted to win over the audience with a detailed speech in what audience members told me was a slightly more hesitant Ukrainian.

That Chrystia Freeland, a Canadian born in Peace River, Alta., speaks the language of Ukraine better than the country’s President – and that both felt it important to begin his term of office with a week in Canada, including multiple meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – is a double accident of history.

President Volodymyr Zelensky is, like almost a third of Ukrainian citizens, a Russian speaker, and he built his career in TV comedy by mastering Ukrainian as a second language. He speaks it very well, I’m told, but without the confidence of a native. That does not mean he is ethnically Russian or inclined to back Moscow over Brussels in the battle for Ukraine’s allegiances – in Ukraine, language does not correlate with politics.

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But it does mean that he felt it important to make a strong case for his authenticity and his pro-Western views to the 1.4 million Canadians who are of Ukrainian ancestry. Those Ukrainian-Canadians are crucial to the fate of both Ukrainian leaders and, often, of Canadian political parties.

During Ukraine’s election this spring, Ukrainian-Canadian figures backed incumbent Petro Poroshenko, an outspoken nationalist with corruption problems who could only govern with the support of some extremist parties, but who had won the confidence of Western governments during Ukraine’s war against its invasion by Russia. Mr. Zelensky is an unknown commodity, especially to a Canadian diaspora that tends to be even more nationalist and anti-Russian in its sentiments than citizens of Ukraine.

Ms. Freeland’s Ukrainian ethnicity and linguistic fluency make her a standout figure in the long history of Ukrainian-Canadian relations. And Mr. Trudeau, as we know, goes out of his way to gain visibility in the homelands of electorally important ethnic groups.

But this government’s eagerness to embrace the latest Ukrainian leader, and the tens of millions it has poured into election support and military-training aid to Ukraine, are far from unique or excessive. The politics of ethnic homelands are not some new addition to Canadian life; they have been central to Canadian politics almost from the beginning.

And it all began with the Ukrainians.

A century before the country of Ukraine came into existence, in the early 1890s, Ukrainians became Canada’s first really major non-Western immigrant group. They did not share a language, a culture or a religion with existing populations; they were also the first immigrants who overwhelmingly stayed in Canada rather than moving south of the border.

Almost from the beginning, Canadian leaders realized that they needed to make the Ukrainians’ interests, and their relationship to their homeland, part of the Canadian political vocabulary.

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After a second wave of Ukrainians arrived in the 1930s, fleeing Stalin’s horrors, Canadian leaders began to speak of their role using a new language of pluralism. In 1936, governor-general Lord Tweedsmuir – also known as Scottish novelist John Buchan – gave a landmark speech to a crowd of Ukrainian-Canadians in Fraserwood, Man., promoting his notion of British Empire multiculturalism: “You will all be better Canadians for being also good Ukrainians … the strongest nations are those that are made up of different racial elements.”

In other words, more than a decade before Canadian citizenship came into existence, officials were inspired by the Ukrainian experience to promote a hyphenated form of Canadianism.

This would be embraced by political leaders of both parties, in part for electoral reasons. It was Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker, a prairie man with a keen sense of retail politics, who most aggressively used this to electoral ends, playing to Ukrainians’ desire for an independent homeland. It didn’t hurt that their fiercely anti-Moscow views lined up neatly with the government’s Cold War perspective.

In 1991, prime minister Brian Mulroney’s decision to become the first Western leader to recognize Ukraine’s claim of national sovereignty, against the advice of other countries, was driven in good part by his attention to this crucial constituency. And it immediately became mandatory for every Prime Minister to be seen shaking hands with whoever happened to be leading Ukraine – no matter how unsavoury the figure, or corrupt the regime.

Given the Ukrainians’ founding role in this most Canadian form of politics, it was inevitable that at some point Canada would manage to out-Ukrainian the Ukrainians themselves. And this week, it happened.

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